Health experts are warning against the possibility of a “twindemic” come flu season this fall. Influenza is a dangerous but preventable virus, and the symptoms it shares with COVID-19 mean that getting the flu vaccine this year is going to be more important than ever — both for individuals and to protect the public.
The flu shot will shore up immune systems and prevent patients from contracting both influenza and COVID-19, which combined could cause serious illness and complicate diagnoses, according to local health officials.
This could place serious strain on local emergency rooms come the fall when influenza infections begin to rise.
Over 180,000 COVID-related deaths have been documented in the United States this year to date. Between Oct. 1, 2019 and April 4, 2020, the CDC estimated that between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans died after coming down with the flu.
Local hospitalizations always increase during flu season, explained City of Brownsville Public Health Director Art Rodriguez.
Added to the risk of additional waves of COVID-19 through the fall and winter months, the situation could be dangerous for residents with pre-existing conditions and weakened immune systems.
“ It is possible to have the flu and COVID at the same time. You’re going to have twice as many people out there looking for a bed, for lack of a better explanation,” said Rodriguez.
“ If you can prevent that situation though mitigating and vaccines ahead of time, you’re just improving the availability of hospital beds through winter.”
Rodriguez explained that the flu vaccine will build an extra level of protection in the event that one does get sick. According to the director, researchers believe that by having the flu shot, individuals are placing themselves in the position to elicit a better immune response.
And it isn’t just those vulnerable to infections who need to take precautions. As County Health Authority Dr. James Castillo described, new research is suggesting that multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) in children may be caused by contracting multiple illnesses at the same time as COVID-19.
MIS-C is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. It has been identified in children who either were infected with COVID-19 or who were around others infected with the virus, though its cause is unknown.
“ The concern is that nobody can figure out why certain children get sick with it and then get put in the hospital with something that looks like Kawasaki disease,” Castillo said.
“ It may be that if you get multiple illnesses at the same time as COVID, it overworks the immune system. Definitely you don’t want to be getting influenza plus COVID at the same time. It highlights the need to get the vaccine as soon as we can to prevent getting influenza in children.”
It’s also a definite possibility that adults can contract both viruses at the same time, he confirmed. Prevention is key.
“ Influenza is not fun. Every year people get put in the hospital with it and every year people die from it. This year, with COVID going around in the winter also, the symptoms are similar — cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches,” he said.
“ Not everybody gets the flu vaccine every year. Hopefully the vast majority of people get the vaccine this year. That might help protect our hospitals and save lives.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated and approved a variety of flu vaccines for patients this year, all listed on the agency’s website. These include standard dose flu shots and high dose shots for people 65 years and older, both of which are egg-based.
Doses made with adjuvant are approved for senior citizens and shots made with the virus grown in cell culture are also available — both of which are egg-free, the agency states.
The CDC recommends getting vaccinated in September and October. Having a flu shot earlier may be less effective, especially for older people, as the virus mutates throughout the season.
“ As long as the flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue, even in January or later,” the CDC writes in its guidance.
The county is awaiting its shipment of flu vaccine doses, according to Dr. Castillo. Shots will be distributed through vaccine programs established in Brownsville, Laguna Vista, San Benito, and Harlingen.
The City of Brownsville has not historically participated in vaccine campaigns, but according to Rodriguez, that is changing this year. Whether the city will be doing outreach or actually coordinating the distribution of vaccines is yet to be determined.
Residents seeking information on the flu shot and other vaccines should contact Cameron County Public Health at (956) 247-3685 or visit www.cameroncounty.us/publicheath.
The City of Brownsville Public Health Department can be reached at (956) 542-3437.